The awful force of the press may yet be felt

Share

On the day in 1976 when the new Prime Minister, James Callaghan, finished off Roy Jenkins's long career in Labour politics - telling him that he was not going to make him Foreign Secretary, and advising him to take the job that was on offer in Brussels - Jenkins and I had dinner together. He was then Home Secretary, for the second time round.

He arranged to pick me up at a friend's house and to drive to the Soho restaurant in his official car. Already in it were two solid citizens, in addition to him. How we all managed to fit in I do not know, but we did. Seated at our table, the two of us, I cast around the restaurant for these bodyguards. They were nowhere to be seen. Jenkins told me not to make a fuss - that they were sure to be in the area somewhere.

"But what will they do for their dinner?" I persisted.

"They'll be perfectly all right," Jenkins said, clearly irritated that the whereabouts of his bodyguards should take precedence over his own preoccupations. "They live off the land."

However, he never complained to me about their omnipresence. His successor at the Home Office, Merlyn Rees, found the security distinctly irksome. It may be that he was subject to more of it because of his previous stint at the Northern Ireland Office. Even so, the Home Secretary has always been accorded more protection than any other minister, including the Prime Minister, though here things may have changed over the last few years. His special position originated in some outrage in Victorian times. It has been maintained ever since.

In these circumstances, it is surprising that some newspapers have been asking whether the security services knew of Mr David Blunkett's liaison with Mrs Kimberly Quinn and, if so, whether they told Mr Tony Blair about it. Perhaps the answer to the second part of the question is not altogether obvious. The security services, the police or whoever may have been availing themselves of the doctrine now popular in ministerial circles: that of the sanctity of private life. But they must have known what was going on. Mr Blunkett, owing to his position, is (or ought to be) under surveillance for most of his working life and no doubt when he is in bed as well, in a general sort of way.

Indeed, in view of the lack of privacy in his life - brought about partly by his office, partly by his blindness - I am full of admiration that he felt able to embark on an affair at all. The corollary is that it could not have been continued without the toleration and, to some extent, the active co-operation of his civil servants. As Roy Jenkins gave me a lift in his car, with attendant bodyguards, so Mr Blunkett must have given Mrs Quinn several lifts in his, with or without the presence of muscular lads in bulging suits.

The officials may well have taken the view that the affair was good for their master, that in his care-strewn life he deserved what The Sun calls a bit of fun. That would have been at the beginning, or when the relationship was proceeding more or less equably, as these things go. Not so today. As Carlyle put it in The French Revolution: "Mad movements both, restrainable by no known rule; strongest passions of human nature driving them on: love, hatred, vengeful sorrow... - and pale panic over all!"

What is clear is that Home Secretaries are different from judges, in whom the principle of the sanctity of private life is not meant to apply so strongly. In guidance drawn up by a committee of judges, which was published last week, the Bench are advised to avoid any situation that might "expose them to charges of hypocrisy by reason of things done in their private life". Moreover, "behaviour that might be regarded as merely unfortunate if engaged in by someone who is not a judge might be seen as unacceptable if engaged in by a person who is a judge and ... has to pass judgment on the behaviour of others".

The rules for politicians are more flexible. Indeed, so flexible are they that they scarcely deserve to be called rules at all. The reasons for ministerial resignations, or for failures to resign, quickly fade from the public memory. Thus Mr David Mellor resigned well before Mr John Major inaugurated his "Back to Basics" campaign. He did not resign because he had enjoyed an affair with an actress about which Mr Max Clifford told tall tales to The Sun but, rather, because he had accepted a free air ticket from another lady, and the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanded his head.

Back to Basics had nothing to do with sex but was concerned with reading, writing and arithmetic. I know, because I was there, and read the speech several times later on. But in a press briefing Mr Tim Collins, in an early exhibition of spin-doctoring, confirmed a journalist's supposition that the then Prime Minister had indeed had the wholesale playing of doctors-and-nurses in his mind. Mr Tim Yeo made a Tory councillor pregnant and was given the heave-ho. Having paid his debt to society, he now adorns Mr Michael Howard's front bench.

Mr Steven Norris had more mistresses than I have usable pairs of shoes but stood firm, saying that (like Mr Blunkett) he was a divorced man who could conduct his life in any way he chose; as he duly proceeded to do. Lord Parkinson stayed with his wife (in accordance with Margaret Thatcher's advice), refused to marry his mistress and had to resign. Lord Lawson, however, separated from his wife, took up with a researcher at the House of Commons library, moved into her small house in Wandsworth, had a baby, got married, had another baby and prospered greatly until he resigned from the Thatcher government for quite other reasons. Nigel's story illustrates that there are occasions when no publicity is good publicity. For some reason, the papers chose not to write about his troubles, if troubles they were.

Mr Blunkett has not exactly been ignored. But then again, his story took a long time, in newspaper terms, to work up a proper head of steam. Even today, the whistle is muted, partly because Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers have treated him with some sympathy. No minister, however, can resist the combined wrath of The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

It is not an edifying spectacle. But what has edification to do with it? Is a forest fire edifying? Or an earthquake, a great flood or the eruption of a volcano? They serve to remind us of the awful force of nature. It is profitless for the papers to proclaim, as they sometimes do, that the tragedy must never be allowed to happen again, for happen it assuredly will. The awful force of the British press has yet to be deployed. It is waiting, as we all are, for Sir Alan Budd.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Team Leader

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would ramp up Britain's spending on science

Paul Nurse
A family remain in the open for the third night following the 7.8 quake in Nepal  

Nepal earthquake: Mobs of looters roam the camps and the smell of burning flesh fills the air, but still we survive

Bidushi Dhungel
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence